Why Do We Play?

Why do we play?” asked Sam Wang, Ph.D., at Thursday’s Learning and the Brain conference at Columbia University in New York.

Play is a “fairly universal biological impulse,” explained Wang, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. It’s a kind of memory that is passed along biologically through generations, which prompts young animals (including humans) to practice skills and scenarios they may face in life.


A Komodo dragon playing tug-of-war with its handler. Kind of like a dog, but in slow motion.

Of course play is not only a learning tool—play is fun! As Wang explained, play activates certain systems in the brain, including the substantia nigra, which through the release of dopamine leads people to experience feelings of reward.

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Action Learning

Despite falling SAT scores and employers reporting that high-school grads can't run the cash register, researchers, educators, and parents each have some pieces of the puzzle of how children learn best. But somehow, all these experts don’t always share what they know.

Consider the power of playful learning. While research shows that unstructured play promotes attention and critical thinking skills and exercise can reduce stress and help prevent obesity, some schools are dropping recess and cutting back on playtime. At home, some parents equate playtime with wasted time, even though imaginative play, like planning and holding a pretend tea party, helps children practice social conversation and completing tasks in order.

How do we change their minds? That's the task the Learning Resources Network, or L_rn, has taken on. Its first big project was the highly successful Ultimate Block Party in New York's Central Park last fall; event planners expected a few thousand families and instead drew more than 50,000. Even The New York Times took notice, albeit a few months later. Local leaders repeated its success recently in Toronto, and on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, Baltimore Public Schools will host the third party, on Rash field in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

“We want to share the science," said Roberta Michnick Golinkoff of the University of Delaware during a forum on the project on Wednesday. "We know how kids learn best; it’s out there, it’s not a secret anymore.”

This four-minute video from last year tells their story, from problems to solutions:

"We want to show the science of learning through play," said L-rn's Publisher Susan Magsamen of Johns Hopkins University during a forum on Wednesday. The Ultimate Block Party is an application of these principles in the real world, and next month the group will launch an application in the virtual world, the Web portal l-rn.com.

Even though I'm not a kid anymore, I'm planning to go to the party in Baltimore. Learning is lifelong, after all. And, as I wrote for the Baltimore magazine Urbanite back in 2006, many of us, of all ages, could use more play in our lives.

— Nicky Penttila

For NFL’s top QBs, brains over brawn

Why is Drew Brees a stud and Joey Harrington a dud? Why is
Peyton Manning a four-time MVP and JaMarcus Russell a benchwarmer? All of these
NFL quarterbacks have the physical tools—arm strength, accuracy, footwork—necessary
to play professional football, you’d imagine, or else they would have never
even made it to the big leagues. But their performance on the field is a
different story.

The difference between elite quarterbacks and highly-touted but
dismally performing prospects, it turns out, may not be in their muscles, but
rather in the organs between their ears.

According to an
article in The Times-Picayune
, there is a growing interest in studying the
brains and cognitive abilities of NFL quarterbacks. Why not? Quarterbacking is
the most mentally challenging position in football, and teams would love to
know if it is possible to determine which players simply don’t have the thinking
skills required to succeed at a high level—before
the draft and salary negotiation.

But wait, this is just football, you might say; it’s not
like it’s rocket science. Well, on that last point, you may be right—football
may be harder, in some ways, mentally
speaking.

The article points out all of the things that a quarterback
has to process. He must learn all 130 or so of his team’s offensive plays—and not
just his role, but those of his 10 teammates (and if these guys are anything
like my high school teammates, they’ll often forget where they’re supposed to
go). He has to spend about 25 hours a week studying film to prep for the next
opponent. And he needs to incorporate and adapt all of this information upon
taking the field and gauging the defensive alignment—with only about 30 seconds
of huddle time to decide.

Once the ball is snapped, things get even more hectic.
Whether a receiver gets bumped, a defensive back shades to a particular side of
the field, or a defensive lineman breaks through into the backfield, a QB is
left with approximately 3.5 seconds to make a final choice on where and when to
release the ball.

According to the article, football experts and neuroscientists
have been discussing the possibility that guys like Brees (of the New Orleans
Saints) and Manning (of the Indianapolis Colts), who were first and second,
respectively, in the league in touchdown passes this season, excel because of
exceptional performance in specific regions of their brains.

Some neuroscientists believe that top-notch QBs are
particularly adept at “unconscious” thought. Their minds intuitively process things
in a split second, without them ever really “thinking” about it, enabling these
players to make correct assessments even during a fast-paced game.

If you are a fast typist, you also understand unconscious
thought, also known as implicit memory: Study the keys long enough, practice
hard, and at some point you can type without looking or actively thinking about
what you are doing. But it is far more vital on the football field. Even if you
or I studied film obsessively and had a knack for throwing spirals, we probably
wouldn’t be able to process the moving defense in a matter of seconds like
these top QBs. The same appears to be true for non-performers like Russell, the
Oakland Raiders former top draft pick, and Harrington, who the Detroit Lions
took with the third pick in 2002.

No doubt the NFL and neuroscientists will continue to team
up in hopes of discovering what to look for in quarterbacks’ brains. It’s
already been suggested that the orbital frontal cortex handles implicit memory,
so further analysis on that region of the brain could provide answers.

For now, fans of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets,
the respective opponents of the Saints and Colts this Sunday, will have to hope
that Brees and Manning are taken down before they even have 3.5 seconds to make
a decision. If they are given enough time, however, Super Bowl XLIV may be known
as the Braniac Bowl.

—Andrew Kahn

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